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Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (review)

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Abstract

The climax culminated in Galton's preaching of Eugenics, and his foundation of the Eugenics Professorship. Did I say "culmination"? No, that lies rather in the future, perhaps with Reichskanzler Hitler and his proposals to regenerate the German people. In Germany a vast experiment is in hand, and some of you may live to see its results. If it fails it will not be for want of enthusiasm, but rather because the Germans are just starting the study of mathematical statistics in the modern sense! Thus Karl Pearson in a speech at a dinner held in his honour at University College London on 23 April 1934. This passage, briefly referred to by Theodore Porter but not quoted, neatly encapsulates many of the key stands of Pearson's life as they emerge from this biography: his almost mystical conviction of the power of statistics, his equally powerful belief in the necessity of eugenics, and, finally, his love of Germany, which was so intense that he changed the original spelling of his first name from Carl to Karl. Pearson (1857–1936) is now primarily remembered as one the founders of modern statistics. As Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College from 1884 to 1911 and then as first Galton Professor of Eugenics (the chair mentioned in the opening quotation) until retirement in 1933, Pearson not only undertook his research, but was also in a powerful position to evangelise his creed of statistics across virtually every aspect of the human and natural worlds. Much of this is well known, and, indeed, Porter devotes relatively few pages to it. What he is interested in are the seminal events that shaped Pearson's life before his conversion to statistics. Although Porter comments that Pearson was so unusual a personality that he cannot be regarded as a representative figure of his times, the evidence presented by this book suggests that he was influenced by many of the intellectual currents, both ancient and modern, available in late-nineteenth-century Europe. Born into a Yorkshire family with Quaker origins, Pearson took the mathematics Tripos at the University of Cambridge where he was third wrangler in 1879. After graduating, having read much German literature while studying in Cambridge, he went to Heidelberg and Berlin where he heard Emil du Bois-Reymond lecture on Darwinism. In Germany, among much else, he took a serious interest in medieval history, folklore, and romanticism; he also wrote and published pseudonymously a very personal book entitled The New Werther (1880). Indeed, so competent was Pearson's German scholarship that he could have easily become the leading German scholar in England. Pearson attended a number of passion plays in southern Germany, and their egalitarian nature evidently impressed him. He later wrote and published, this time anonymously, in 1882, his own play, The Trinity, which contains much of his own character in the person of Jesus. It is clear that in the early 1880s he was searching for something certain to believe in and seriously considered converting to Roman Catholicism. Such an interest in the religion of southern Germany—with its emphasis on society as a whole in a paternalistic corporatist manner rather than on the individual—seems to be at the root of Pearson's later devotion to statistics, which of necessity incorporates the individual within a greater whole. It would also explain his later association with English socialism. While Porter hints at this line of argument, he does not systematically pursue it. After reading this book it seems to me that Pearson's experiences in Germany are the key to understanding his later commitments, not only in terms of the individual's submission to the Church or statistics, but also perhaps in terms of Pearson's commitment to eugenics. Porter traces this to Pearson's relationship with Francis Galton, but there may well have been other factors that Pearson saw but are not recorded, at least here. For instance, it should be noted that it was in the south German cultural milieu, that so influenced Pearson, that many of the Nazi leaders were brought up, and later others, such as Joseph Ratzinger, a member of the Hitler Youth, come from that area. Pearson emerges...

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